Rules and laws

For Grammar Day, I want to talk briefly about laws and rules, and the fact that some people who should know better get them confused.

Let’s start with laws of nature. Say someone holds a rock in front of them and lets go of it. It flies upward instead of falling. Do you say, “No, you’re doing it wrong – the rock is supposed to fall down”?

Then there’s criminal law. Let’s say that instead of dropping the rock, they throw it through a store window. You might say “Hey!”; a cop who is nearby might arrest them – or they might get away with it.

That’s sort of like the rules of sport. Say the person is playing football, and they throw a rock instead of a football – or maybe they just throw a football the wrong way. The player will get a penalty – if the referee sees it.

But how about the rules of grammar? Let’s say someone writes a sentence: “Person the throw rock football and window at.” Your reaction on reading it is probably something like “Huh? That doesn’t even make sense.”

So let’s say instead that the sentence is “Smashing a window, the person throwed rock and football.” If you’re like a lot of people, you’ll readily utter a correction of one or more errors, even if no one asked you to. You may also say something about the intellect of the writer.

The law of gravity, like any law of nature, doesn’t need anyone to enforce it. If you see a law of nature being broken, you’re wrong: either the law isn’t really being broken (it’s an illusion, or some other law is relevant) or the law as you know it is inaccurate or incomplete and your understanding needs to be revised.

Civil and criminal laws do need enforcement, because they’re human creations. Some of us may believe that laws are there to enforce laws of nature (or of God), but really at most we’ve just appointed ourselves to try and keep people behaving in accordance with our ideas of those laws, which is an us thing. Civil and criminal laws are like the rules of sports, but with broader application and stronger enforcement mechanisms.

And rules of grammar? Ones like in the last example, such as that it’s “threw,” not “throwed,” that you shouldn’t use dangling participles, and that you should be careful with definite and indefinite articles, are also like the rules of sports: in published texts, editors typically serve as referees, following specified style rules; in a broader social context, enforcement is mostly not formalized. The rules may have a certain tidiness, but that tidiness is not a natural law, nor is it inevitable – any editor who works with multiple house styles knows that.

But what about more basic rules of grammatical conmprehensibility, such as the ones broken by “Person the throw rock football and window at”? Those, too, are human creations – just at the level of social norms that we rarely stop even to inspect. Using the rules of some other languages, that weird sentence would be entirely coherent. English puts the definite article (“the”) before the noun, but Scandinavian languages tack it onto the end of the noun as a suffix. English can be very fussy with verb conjugations (“throw,” “throws,” “threw”), especially irregular ones, but other languages are less so, and some – such as Mandarin Chinese – don’t conjugate at all. English requires indefinite articles (“a rock,” “a football”), but Gaelic doesn’t, and Slavic languages don’t use definite or indefinite articles. And English expects “and” to go between the things it combines, but in Latin its equivalent can be tacked onto the second item, as in “Senatus Populusque Romanus” – literally “Senate People-and Roman” (in English, “the Senate and People of Rome”).

So, in short, the rules of grammar, even the most apparently essential rules, are not inevitable. Grammar, even the most fundamental grammar, is not a natural law; it is like the rules of a sport. The way you say a thing is not the one logical, inevitable, natural way to say it, even if – within the variety of the language you’re speaking – it’s the only “proper” way to say it. Even the idea that a double negative equals a positive, which seems plainly logical to modern English speakers, seems otherwise to speakers of languages such as Spanish or Italian, where a negative requires agreement (e.g., “No vale nada” and “Non vale niente”: “It’s not worth nothing”). After all, it can’t be a negative statement if it’s positive in some places. Logic!

But some people, even some otherwise well educated people, seem unaware of this. Editors and linguists are wearily used to people priggishly “correcting” them with simplistic grammar rules and ideas that they recall from school, as though those rules were basic truths like natural law. I’ve seen it even from people who have graduate-level educations and clearly ought to know better.

And why does it matter? I’ve written before about how this kind of dogmatic position is used to license social aggression (see What do we care about, really and Why all English speakers worry about slipping up), but the boorishness of grammar snobs is not the biggest thing. The idea that there is one correct, natural, logical grammar gives cover for not just class discrimination but also racism (because different social groups use different varieties of the language) and even sexism (in particular ideas about such things as pronouns and grammatical gender – I’ve given talks on this several times; a video of one time is at A Hidden Gender?). 

A person who understands the socially decided nature of grammar rules can understand that someone who’s using a kind of English that’s not “proper” is not inferior, and that different varieties of English are grammatically coherent even if they’re different from the schoolbook standard. Knowing this also broadens a person’s expressive repertoire.

Does all this mean that grammar is a free-for-all, or that there’s no point in teaching it? Of course it doesn’t mean that. We teach people about the rules of sports and the rule of law. We also teach people about dress codes – there are certain things you just don’t wear in certain places and occasions, not for any matter of intrinsic suitability (sweatshirts are no less functionally suited to formal occasions than tuxedos), but just because of the social implications they have come to have. Likewise, if you use a library, you learn how the books are arranged on the shelves, and it’s a tidy, systematic, enforceable order, but it’s not an inevitable one: the choice of Dewey versus Library of Congress, just for instance, will give quite different orderings. 

Tidiness can be good, and consistent, well-defined rules can be useful. I make a nice bit of money every year tidying up text. But rigidity and narrow-mindedness are bad. And believing that the simple rules you learned in your simple youth are the only true rules is a mistake that will limit your effectiveness – and, on the larger level, can limit others, and our effectiveness and potential as a society. Learn rules – as many different sets as possible – and use them judiciously.

Oh, and have fun.

One response to “Rules and laws

  1. What a great column! Thanks, James.

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